> Maurice Ravel - Sting Quartet, Introduction and Allegro, Le Tombeau de Couperin etc... [JQ]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Le Tombeau de Couperin* [12’35"]
String Quartet in F** [28’22"]
Valses Nobles et Sentimentales*** [21’23"]
Introduction and Allegro for flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet**** [10’44"]
*Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner
(Recorded in Abbey Road Studios, London)
**The Lindsays
(Recorded in Holy Trinity Church, Wentworth 5 – 7 July, 1994)
***Gordon Fergus-Thompson (piano)
(Recorded in All Saints Church, Petersham, November 1991)
****Prometheus Ensemble
Recorded in St. Peter’s, Morden
ASV PLATINUM PLT 8517 [73’12"]


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ASV have assembled here a nice, varied selection of music by Ravel and one which contains two of the finest works in the twentieth century chamber music repertoire.

Ravel’s orchestral output is represented by the suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin. This began life in 1917 as a six-movement work for piano and the orchestration of four of the movements was done two years later. Here the suite is freshly and immaculately played by Marriner and the members of the Academy. The ‘Prélude’ has gaiety and spirit. In the ‘Forlane’ the lilt of the dotted rhythms is done perfectly while the ‘Menuet’ has all the necessary grace and eloquence for what is after all a nostalgic expression of regret for friends and times past. In this movement especially the poised phrasing of the ASMF’s wind soloists gives great pleasure. To conclude, the scurrying ‘Rigaudon’ is zestfully played. This is a winning performance.

The String Quartet is entrusted to one of Britain’s foremost quartets, the Lindsays, and is a splendid example of the great artistry which they have displayed in a career now lasting for over thirty years. This is an extraordinarily subtle score. As we read in the brief liner notes "most of all the music’s joy lies in sheer sound." It is clear that the Lindsays have studied the piece with painstaking thoroughness and have got right inside the music. They call upon the fullest possible range of timbres and I admired particularly their intense, controlled quiet playing. Theirs is a performance which is alive to every nuance and although all the incidental beauties are revealed the reading is greater than the sum of its parts and, above all, has a strong sense of flow and momentum.

In the work’s second movement they certainly obey Ravel’s marking ‘très rythmé’. However, they convey just as successfully the hushed, reflective music which lies at the core of that movement (track 6, 1’ 48"). This passage has great tenderness in their hands. They go on to give a deeply felt reading of the wistful and shadowy slow movement. Here their tonal refinement is pretty marvellous and the playing is compelling. "Compelling" is also, I feel, the mot juste for their urgent account of the finale which sounds just as Ravel intended, ‘vif et agité’. In summary, this is a quite wonderful reading of the quartet and it alone is worth the price of the disc.

Gordon Fergus-Thompson may not be a stellar name but he is a fine pianist and he gives a sympathetic and involving performance of the Valses. I must admit to a preference for the orchestral version which Ravel made in 1912, a year after writing the original piano work. However, in expressing that preference I don’t mean to imply that there’s any lack of contrast or colour in Fergus-Thompson’s playing. I find him particularly convincing in the slower sections such as the ‘Assez lent’ (track 10) but I do like the ‘give’ he imparts to the ‘Vif’ section (track 14). The concluding ‘Epilogue’ (track 16) is most atmospherically done and on this showing Fergus-Thompson need not fear comparisons with more famous pianists.

I think that Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro is, quite simply, one of the supreme masterpieces of chamber music, and not just of the twentieth century. It is a uniquely subtle and evocative composition in which Ravel uses the contrasting timbres of his unusual ensemble to stunning effect.

Here, the pellucid beauties of this extraordinary score are realised exceptionally well by the Prometheus Ensemble. The players sound as if they’re not just playing together but for each other. The piece can seem like a mini-concerto for harp and ensemble. However, although the playing of the un-named harpist (Caryl Thomas, I suspect) is very fine, the contributions of the other players are just as sensitive and as essential to the success of the enterprise. Clearly, a considerable amount of detailed preparation has been done but the finished performance flows effortlessly and with complete spontaneity. This is a very fine performance which I enjoyed greatly and to which I will return.

The notes are short paragraphs which clearly have been culled from the documentation of the original release. They are satisfactory but no more than that and of limited help to anyone new to Ravel’s music who buys this as an introduction to his oeuvre. The recorded sound, taken from a variety of sources, is excellent throughout and truthfully musical. I also like the stylish, silver packaging. All in all, this is a most attractive and recommendable anthology.

John Quinn

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